Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Kokoda Track, part I

In 1942, the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea was the scene of one of the bloodier campaigns in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. I have always found this battle to be compelling, chiefly after reading John Costello's wonderful book (hereinafter (C)).  I also consulted Bergerud's book, excellent for its constant inclusion of veteran accounts of battle (hereinafter (B)). These and other references below.

In the United States, we are more used to considering Guadalcanal as a touchstone for military sacrifice. For Australia, this is the campaign that resonates--Guadalcanal, only right next door.
This might take more than two posts to finish. I am not a seasoned military writer, so anyone who wants to add clarifications, please write in. I wanted to try--
Kokoda Track, 2006

Before and After
In 1890, the Kokoda Track was the way to the Yodda Kokoda goldfields. You'd leave northern Australia, hop across the water to Port Moresby, and travel 37 miles to Kokoda--in nearly a straight line by the map. An experienced, athletic hiker with modern hiking gear can now traverse it in four arduous days. Even today freight is either airlifted or carried in by human bearer. Three days is the record, for native New Guineans who use it regularly under peace conditions.

The Kokoda Track runs over the spine of the volcanic Owen Stanley range, topping out at altitude 7185 ft/2190 meters. It has mud: slippery slopes. It has creeks. Hot and wet during the day, it is also freezing cold at night. The track is completely surrounded by a jungle full of malarial mosquitoes. After the beach elevation, tall kunai grass stands, a more than decent cover for advance, but with no visibility. The kunai grass, according to veteran Ernest Gerber:
is a tall grass that grows from five to eight feet tall, [and as thick as a lawn, only tall] . . . the blades are razor sharp. Immediately after the kunai grass you enter the Owen Stanley foothills.
Another feature of the volcanic area is that going up was not straight up--or gradually higher--this is an area of "young' geological activity, with many spines, gorges--hard sharp rock in increasingly irregular "folded" terrain. The dense jungle surrounded the highest elevations of most of these volcanic islands, making high ground no real advantage as far as forecasting the advance of an enemy. (B)

Technology and Supply
The technology that made the early difference was the machete and the shovel. The machete was used on what U.S. Marines called 'Wait a minute' vines, jungle brush, small and large trees. It was a shin-breaking, back-aching, fever-making, nightmarish terrain, a place where any individual excuse to fail might seem justified--and yet both sides refused to fail.

The Allies that met the Japanese on the Kokoda track needed to be triathletes, Sherpas, and of a mental and moral fiber that enabled them to push their will through both Nature's and man's conceptions of hell. And at this early stage of the war for the U.S., supply chain for basics such as groundsheets, anti-malarial meds, and rations was not fully worked out. (C)

The Battle for the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) and Midway (June 4-7, 1942)
Both the Allies and the Japanese considered New Guinea one strategic placement for the invasion of Australia, and both calculated there would be no better place to launch such an invasion than Port Moresby. The Allies had already garrisoned Port Moresby and fought off navy interference in the Battle of the Coral Sea, around the Solomon Islands (to the East of Papua New Guinea). Then they smacked the Japanese Navy at Midway .  Both of these battles are significant in that aircraft carriers meant everything--sea power was extended by air power. Therefore, the fight was not just for ocean control, but for air supremacy, over land and sea.

At the end of Midway, the Japanese Navy still had lethal capability. But it could no longer implement its "Second Operational Phase"--the offensive--to Samoa as previously planned, and then island-hopping to New Guinea. (C). They reconsidered their options, but as we know, they weren't ready to quit. In particular, the Japanese Army saw this as their opportunity to mount some of their own campaign priorities. (B)

Map: The Battle of the Coral Sea. Papua New Guinea's Eastern peninsula at top left, Australia at bottom left. Samoa is further East, 2500 miles from Australia. Rabaul is top center, barely in the map, a leg of New Guinea. 

With their navy lacking offensive might, the Japanese Army stepped up for an overland war across New Guinea. Allied cryptographers had not finished cracking this permutation of the Japanese battle codes. But Australian reconnaissance planes noted the troop transport ships from Rabaul on July 18, 1942. The Allies tried bombing runs, but the aircraft carriers were barely in range for B-17 bombers to be effective. The Japanese plan was to land troops at Buna and Gona on the North coast, then travel overland to the south and harass Australia that way. (C).

The Japanese Campaign
The Japanese took Gona on July 22, 1942 under a determined General Horii.  Horii then sent an advance force of 2,000 soldiers, armed with machetes and shovels with holes in the blade (important technology here: the holes in the shovel are better for use in swampy muck). They were to hack their way through. The first man in each column cut back jungle until he fell from exhaustion, and then the man behind him hacked jungle after that. This pitiless method worked. Within days, 13,000 troops and 1,000 native bearers were poised at the top of that mountainous spine. (C).

No one expected the Japanese to work past such a formidable natural barrier, and especially not so soon. Australia had stationed 500 members of the 39th Infantry along with Papuan troops in the area. They would soon engage a force vastly the stronger.

The first engagement was 30 Australians of the 11th platoon of the 39th against an advance guard of Japanese, out-numbered and lacking weaponry. They had their revolvers, and one Lewis machine gun. The average age of those members of the platoon was 18.5 years (DH).

Kokoda Track, 1943

The continued fight for Kokoda continued to be unequal.  The 39th was ordered to hold. Their commanding officer was killed in a pitched battle for Kokoda town/settlement on July 29. The only way to resupply, reinforce the Australians/PIN, or retreat, was via the Kokoda track. This was being shelled and mortared by the Japanese, an already near-impossible road that had become a deathly path. With a large number of starving, wounded, and sick soldiers, the retreat to the "Gap" began.

The history of this rear action--ferocious on both sides, with the Australians saving nearly all of their wounded over the weeks of strategic retreat, should never be forgotten.
I'll return to this subject, but not tomorrow. Still working up the rest, and I want it to be right.
Adventure Out, Cross-section map of the Kokoda Trail (pdf)
Eric Bergerud, Touched with Fire, Viking, 1996. Gerber quote p. 75.
John Costello's The Pacific War, 1941-1945, Quill, 1982
US Army photos
A veteran's account of the retreat from Kokoda at Digger History
Wikipedia, as linked above.
Photos: Australian Age, Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Anonymous said...

this is really interesting

Bob G. said...


As a history buff, I never miss a chance to learn more about WW2 - and the Kokoda Track was something I was not familiar with until now.
(the ANZACS were some tough troopers)

Thank you...

RD said...

Great Post! I am eagerly awaiting part two.

Ann T. said...

Dear Stephanie, Bob, and RD,
Thanks for all the interest! I was a bit nervous, sometimes these accounts vary when you try to match them up.

More is coming soon,
Ann T.

Unknown said...

I ducked just in time as this went flying right over my head. lol

I'm not taking the Adderall this week cause I'm having all those neuropsych tests done. Once I get back on the focus juice I'll be back to take this one in. ;)

The Observer said...

Ann T.

Every veteran I have ever met who fought in this theater has indicated it was just brutal. Very brave men.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear peedee,
Come back anytime you want! All the posts will still be here for you to enjoy or skip at will. You are welcome whenever!

Good luck with testing. May it be accurate, easy, and find nothing wrong.
Ann T.

Dear The Observer,
I must admit I enjoy studying the Pacific theatre the most. I may be wrong, but I just don't think as much is written about it as the European.
Ann T.

Dear All,
Today I talked to my neighbor Mr. B, and told him I was writing on WW2. He shook his head. "Yeah, my mis-spent youth," he said.

He has a huge library of WW2 tomes. So that's a modest hero talking.
Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Great post Ann T. I know nothing about this battle. I enjoy the diversity of topics that you write about here. Keep it up.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I just put the part 2 up. I'm pretty sure I'm going to stop at 3, whether the Allies have won by then or not.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.